Emily Kam Kngwarray was born circa 1914 in a remote Northern Territory community known as Utopia. It was between here and Mparntwe (Alice Springs) where the Anmatyerr artist created most of her striking paintings — often sat outside in shade of a tree or under a veranda, canvases spread out on the ground amongst fellow artists.
So when the National Gallery of Australia decided to shine a spotlight on Emily in a new survey exhibition, they knew it also meant shining a spotlight on her community. For the past two years, co-curators Kelli Cole (Warumungu and Luritja peoples) and Hetti Perkins (Arrernte and Kalkadoon peoples) have spent a lot of time getting to know the women at the Utopia Art Centre, where Emily was a senior artist.
‘Kngwarray’s paintings encompass traditional cultural expressions, they are the direct representation and reflection of her as a senior Anmatyerr law woman,’ Kelli says. ‘Each batik and painting included has been sighted, discussed, and elaborated on, and approved by community.’
This lengthy consultation process has made the resulting Emily Kam Kngwarray exhibition even more meaningful. The curators landed on a selection of works that follow the last 20 years of the artist’s life, from the early vibrant batik textiles to her ‘monumental’ paintings on canvas that caught the attention of the Australian contemporary art scene in the early 1990s.
Despite having painted for decades only in a ceremonial context, by her 80s, Emily had developed an expressive, vibrant artistic style that helped spark a greater appreciation for First Nations art here in Australia, and overseas. In 2017, her painting ‘Earth’s Creation 1’ sold for $2.1m, making it the most expensive artwork by an Australian female artist!
‘The unprecedented trajectory of Kngwarray’s recognition and fame as an artist is now well-known way beyond the country of her origins,’ Kelli says.
In addition to bringing together her remarkable pieces from all over the world, the exhibition also features immersive soundscapes, audio tours, and an audiovisual collaboration with the artist’s community.
‘The women painted up with the ceremonial designs for their Country, sang the Alhalker and Anangker songs and danced, sometimes accompanied by the sound of Kngwarray’s voice on an old recording,’ Kelli explains. ‘As Jedda Kngwarray Purvis says, listening to her voice made us proud: “This is our song. We are going to keep on singing it. We are going to learn to sing the way she did and keep on singing.”‘
The curators hope Emily Kam Kngwarray reveals fragments of the artist’s incredible life, what it was like growing up as an Aboriginal person in the first decades of the twentieth century, and how her art champions her Country on the world stage.
Emily Kam Kngwarray is on at the National Gallery of Australia from December 2 until April 28 2024. Tickets are available here.